Catherine Graham’s poetry has won numerous awards and garnished huge praises from all sorts. Now Graham has turned her skilled craft towards a novel, something many people have been eagerly talking about in many of my circles. Graham was kind enough to answer a few questions about her first novel “Quarry.”
1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of “Quarry.”
It’s a fictional account of what an introverted young woman discovers about herself on a journey that starts with an idyllic upbringing with her parents in a house beside a water-filled limestone quarry and moves through tragic loss, love and the family secrets that emerge.
2) This is your first published novel. Was there much of a ‘jump’ for you from writing poetry to writing a novel?
Yes and no. The imagery that powers my poetry is still present in the novel, but writing prose has so many more opportunities for detail and well, completeness. Some readers of early novel drafts were also fans of my poetry and I wasn’t sure how they’d like the book. Thankfully the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. I think I was able to find the right balance between the lyricism of poetry and the narrative form demanded by long prose.
3) Was there something specific that inspired you to write this novel?
Ultimately, the novel is about a young woman who learns to draw on inner strength she didn’t know she had to overcome dramatic challenges on her journey to adulthood. Those who know me will see parallels with my own life, but Caitlin Maharg’s story is not mine, nor is mine hers. So I guess you could say the inspiration for the novel has been with me forever.
4) “Two Wolves Press” seems like a unique publishing house. How did you get involved with them?
Alexandra Leggat is a fellow instructor at University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. She started Two Wolves Press with a fiercely independent desire to publish a few carefully curated books each year that would bring fresh voices to the Canadian literary scene. Having Two Wolves pick up Quarry for publication was a match made in heaven. I loved Two Wolves’ approach to publishing and thankfully, Alexandra loved Quarry. (Link to Two Wolves Press Blogspot site)
5) Are you planning any public readings/discussions of “Quarry?” If yes, any specific dates that you are excited to be partaking in?
The novel launches June 1 at The Tranzac Club in Toronto. IFOA and Two Wolves Press have partnered up for the event as part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series (Link to the event’s website here). After a short reading, Mary Lou Finlay, radio and television journalist, will interview me on stage. There will also be music from the soundtrack of the novel and other special features. Then on June 4, I’ll be doing a Q & A at the Calgary Memorial Library as part of Spur Festival Calgary. (Link to event’s website here)
I’m thrilled to be partaking in both events and all are welcome to attend. I’m also looking forward to reading in the UK this August as part of The Shaken and the Stirred group—readings in London, Manchester, Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Link here), Seamus Heaney HomePlace, Belfast’s Linen Hall Library and Bangor’s Open House Festival.
6) You mentioned in a past Q&A a few years ago that you just signed on to Twitter. And you have an active role on Facebook. How do you like using social media in relation to your writing?
It’s interesting you should ask. Social media was a bit of a foreign landscape to me at first, but it’s actually more fun than I thought it would be. To that end, I’ll be making some exciting changes to my social media presence in the near future, so stay tuned to the website (www.catherinegraham.com), Twitter (@catgrahmpoet) and Instagram (catgrahampoet) to see what’s cooking.
7) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?
Right now, I’m focused on making sure people enjoy the novel launch and know where they can get a copy of the book (Ben McNally’s Bookstore in Toronto (Link here) and Shopify (Link here).
But regardless of how busy I am, scribbled ideas always seem to be appearing in my notebook, so in a way, you could say I’m already at work on the next novel. Or poetry collection. Or something. Speaking of poetry, my seventh collection, The Celery Forest, will appear this fall with Wolsak & Wynn. (Link to their website)
Author Bio: Catherine Graham is the author of five acclaimed poetry collections. Her most recent collection, Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects, was a finalist for the Raymond Souster Award and CAA Poetry Award. Winner of the IFOA’s Poetry NOW competition, she teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto where she won an Excellence in Teaching Award. Her work is anthologized in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vol IV & V, The White Page/An Bhileog Bhan: Twentieth Century Irish Women Poets and has appeared in The Malahat Review, Gutter Magazine (Scotland), Poetry Daily (USA), The Glasgow Review of Books, Poetry Ireland Review, The Ulster Tatler, The Fiddlehead, LRC, Southword Journal (Ireland), CBC Books and elsewhere. International reading venues include Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2016 and 2017, University of Westminster, Bowery Poetry Club NYC, International Anthony Burgess Foundation (Manchester), 4th International Congress of Language and Literature Linares (Mexico), Seamus Heaney HomePlace (Northern Ireland) and the Thessaloniki International Book Fair (Greece). She publishes two books in 2017, her sixth poetry collection, The Celery Forest, and her debut novel, Quarry. Visit her at www.catherinegraham.com.
It is always a thrill for me to talk about a writer who has honed their craft through a collection of short stories who finally releases a complete novel. And Rebecca Rosenblum is such a writer. She brilliantly documented elements of human condition in her short story collections such as The Big Dream (Link to my review) and Once (Review coming shortly). Now her first complete novel So Much Love is out and should be a stunning read as well. Rosenblum took some time out from a busy book tour to answer a few questions for me.
First off, could you give a bit of an overview of So Much Love?
The main story in So Much Love is about a young woman named Catherine Reindeer who goes missing and, first, what those who knew her go through in her absence also what happens to Catherine herself. But there’s also a thread woven through about a poet Catherine admires, Julianna Ohlin, dead many years, and what her life amounted to, or how Catherine imagines her. That’s a lot of different stories, because the people who miss Catherine each get their own voices and experiences and so does Julianna and the people in her world. That is how I like to experience the world—lots of different viewpoints, as a way to piecing together my own. In the end, with careful editing, I think Catherine’s powerful conclusion.
2) Was there anything specific that inspired you to write this book? Is there anything you are hoping to accomplish with So Much Love?
I was interested in the way that, first, female artists are often conflated with their biographies. This happens to men too, of course, but it seems much stronger with women. Even in an academic context, a woman’s art is indivisible from her life, her suffering, her love affairs in a way that I don’t think would be conceive able for a man. I was also interested in the way that there’s a kind of style or genre of fiction where a crime forms that backdrop, and much more mundane dramas form the main action. In truth, that is the way many of us live our lives, and thank goodness—we have the privilege of listening to the worst crimes on the news for twenty minutes, then shutting it off and thinking about getting new shoes or what to make for dinner for the next hour. But shouldn’t fiction go deeper, explore the hard parts?
3) According to your website, your previous books have been collections of short stories. Was it a major difference to now write a complete narrative for one book? How long did it take to write So Much Love?
Yes, I found it very challenging, and I had a lot of help. I took earlier runs at writing this novel—one starting in 2000 and one in 2004, but I just didn’t yet have the writing chops to make it through this complicated and challenging story. Then after graduate school in creative writing and two collections, working with an excellent editor (the rightly revered John Metcalf), I started again in 2011 and was able to get all the way through, after a fashion, though at that point the book was linked short stories. When McClelland & Stewart bought the book, my editor Anita Chong asked me if I was willing to edit it into a novel and I said yes—that was what I had wanted all along, I just couldn’t make it work. It took more than two years and I lot of blood, sweat and tears from both of us—along with over 30 000 added words—but we did it!
4) Are you planning any public readings of So Much Love? If yes, are there any dates/events you are excited to be participating in?
I’m actually typing this in Vancouver, and will be reading tonight at the Vancouver Public Library as part of the Incite series presented by the Vancouver Writers Festival. But by the time this gets posted I’ll probably be looking forward to my reading at Pivot at the Steady April 19 (Link here), which is going to be super fun, and then on April 22 I’ll be reading at the Making Room launch party in Toronto for an anthology that celebrates 40 years of Room magazine (Facebook link here)
5) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you can share?
When I finally signed off on the last version of So Much Love, I did get started on a new project that I’ve been thinking about for a while—a father-daughter novel that takes place over many years. I enjoyed working on it, as the book is more light-hearted than So Much Love but still with some darker themes, but I had to put it aside first for some personal problems and then for the promotional work on So Much Love. I’m really looking forward to getting back to it when the excitement dies down, though.
6) You seem to have an active profile on Facebook. Many of my followers always want to know what is the best way to keep up to date with their favourite writers (New works, events, etc.) . Are you using Facebook for that regard? Do you have any plans to expand your social-media presence to something like Twitter or Google Plus?
I think the best way to find out about new work, events, and publications from me would probably be my twitter account, (Link to her Twitter account here) or my website/blog, www.rebeccarosenblum.com My Facebook and Instagram accounts both have a lot of personal stuff mixed in—unless you care a lot about cats, things I ate, and pictures of my husband, those would be less of interest. I never made the leap to Google Plus and now I hear it is shutting down so I guess I never will.
7) Your biography has you listed as living in Toronto. How do you like living there? Are there any specific cultural institutions or events there that inspire you as a writer?
It took me while but now I love Toronto so much I can’t imagine ever leaving. A lot of that has to do with people, though—my friends, my family, some of my in-laws, and a lot of the literary community that I know are there. But there is also so much good stuff—from the Jays to Allan Gardens to the ROM to Bluffs—that I adore in Toronto. I love just walking down the street and looking at stores, and I know so many people I pretty often run into someone I know. I have lived there 15 years and despite the challenges, I feel truly at home there. I did my masters in creative writing at University of Toronto and that is just a gorgeous campus. I loved getting my degree there but I know others have legit complaints; however, no one could dispute the loveliness of the St. George campus. I’m still happy to hang out at Hart House or one of the libraries if I have a writing day and feel like getting out of the house.
The beauty of a good book is that it captures the complexities of real life that we readers endure in a simple manner. We want to see our world told through the eyes of others in order to better understand ourselves. We all endure the complex dynamics of a workplace – the interactions of co-workers, the placements of our desks, the failings of equipment, etc – yet we feel alone in our frustrations. But, alas, we aren’t. Rebecca Rosenblum has given our workplace angst some references points in her book The Big Dream.
Page 9 – Dream Big
The cafeteria was closed for renovations and the temporary lunchroom was in the basement. In fact, the temporary lunchroom was actually a meeting room with tables, folding chairs, a microwave, four vending machines, and no windows. Many employees chose to eat at their desks, but some made use of the room.
Clint peeled the plastic off his Crackerz’n’chese.
“Cheze does not look like an English word.” said Anna. She was eating unstirred fruit-at-the-bottom yoghurt.
“Still delicious.” Luddock was eating a mustard-soaked sandwich. The sheer yellow bread revealed the pink of bologna.
“Of course.” Anna reached the fruit layer and beamed into her plastic cup.
“Listen -” Clint leaned forward “Remember, last Tuesday -?”
“No!” Luddock waved his sandwich. Bread flapped away from meat. “I download all previous-week memories to the main server at midnight on Saturdays. Frees up disc space for current work.”
“Luddock, no!” Anna squawked, mouth full of pureed berries. “This is not a Tech Support situation. Do not make Tech jokes.
“Actually, only Tech is sitting at this table.”
“Lunch is our own time. We could be sitting with another department, people who don’t even work here. We shouldn’t make this a closed conversation.”
This was one of those books that I just couldn’t put down. It felt like Rosenblum has captured a slice of my life in it. (And no doubt many of these experiences in this book must have come from real-life experience.) The book centres around the company Dream Inc. a somewhat tired and broken publishing firm. Rosenblum has exacted a series of stories around people who work in this company to show how the dynamic of this firm exists. And in doing so has reflected a true reality that many of us endure.
Page 132-133 Research
When Research got off the bus at 8:45 the next morning, there was a silver-blue airplane high above her head. It had a fish painted vertically on the tail, as if it was diving. the fish was blue, too, brighter than the plane. Brightest blue of all was the sky.
Indoors was mainly grey but the blue beamed in through the enormous window, which someone somehow had washed, inside and out.
She looked into the exact definition of teal, the blogs of MuchMusic VJs that her sons liked, the calorie content of chili, the average woman’s desired amount of oral sex versus experienced. She sent these facts to various editors at Dream Fashion, Dream Teen, Dream Woman. She stared out the window, The sky was a medium blue-green, more blue than green: teal.
She walked through the vast empty space between her desk and the window – even the other researchers’ desks had been removed now. She had always threaded through them like a rope through a grommet, and now there was too much space. She had liked her colleagues; everyone boiled extra water in case someone else wanted tea. She had no way of finding them now, out there in their real lives.
Back at her desk, Research found an enthusiastic email from Dream Woman regarding her facts about oral pleasure, requesting further research. The editor did not mention the chili information (surprisingly low fat).
Googling “techniques+cunnilingus” brought many suggestions, but they repeated from website to website, or even within one – “light feathery kisses to the inner thigh” seemed much the same as “light feathery kisses up and down the leg.” She wondered how else to reteach this, eyed the framed photo of her husband in his canoe, and sent off her report.
She boiled a single cup of water for tea. She ate her yoghurt early. She looked out the window at a helicopter rising, possibly carrying the executive team from an internet start-up with a bold innovation for something. She wanted to research using reality, not the Internet. She wanted to be good at her job and interesting to her family. She wanted to be someone who found job in more than just what her husband got up to with his tongue.
Rosenblum’s language is simple and frank which makes these stories so realistic and believable. There are terms which are well-known trademarks which gives the reader the true impression that they are witnessing something out of a real workplace. And Rosenblum’s explorations of thoughts and emotions are direct and true. Nothing here is held back or questioned. These stories truly feel like a slice of real life.
Page 144 – Loneliness
Theirs was a flirtation of short emails and patchy cellphone calls. Once, a birthday card curled into a FedEx tube. Once – and nervously – lunch alone together in the employee cafeteria. Cheese cannelloni and diet Coke for both. Except for that first surreptitious caress of a thigh, several too-lingering arm-squeezes, and once when he held her coat for her and she, reaching backwards, missed entirely and stroked her palm down the flat expanse of his belly – except for these moments, there had been no physical contact at all.
Privately, they cursed themselves for teenaged fantasies that could, doubtless lead only down alleys of frustration and masturbation. Desire only increases loneliness.
There had been moments of opportunity unrealized, when they were both perhaps stunned to realize their own limits. Both had attended a two-day trade show, sitting together at a particle-board demonstration, at a Kitchen of the Future demonstration, at an Ikea demonstration. They had sat together in the bar, and talked of the pets they had as children, animals now dead. They talked of their parents who were dead now, too, and how lonely it felt to walk the earth knowing their parents were dead. They talked about, or at least each somehow managed to mention, what their hotel room numbers were.
Rebecca Rosenblum has created a brilliant piece of literature with The Big Dream. This collection of insights into a workplace is bluntly honest and true. A great read and one that will create reflections and considerations.
Janie Chang enthralled many readers with her first novel Three Souls. She had carefully crafted that work with a mixture of history, emotion, mysticism, and romance. Now Janie has come out with a second book called Dragon Springs Road and it promises to be just an equally endearing read. Chang recently answered a few questions for me.
1)First off, could you give a bit of an outline of Dragon Springs Road?
The novel is set during the early decades of 20th century China, and opens with a young girl named Jialing who’s been abandoned in the courtyard of an old estate outside Shanghai. She finds out very quickly that her life is going to be terrible, because she’s a girl, orphaned, and worst of all, Eurasian. Even though she’s taken in as a bondservant by the family that moves into the estate, Jialing’s life is always going to be difficult. The two main concerns in her life are: how can she survive once the family is done with her, and how can she find her mother? It’s a turbulent time in Chinese history – the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the birth of a new republic, the rise of warlords, and all sorts of social upheaval. There’s a murder, political intrigue, supernatural elements that include a Fox spirit, and themes of race and identity, acceptance and friendship.
2)Your website states that you draw on family stories for your inspiration for your writing? What or who inspired your to write this book?
My first novel, Three Souls, was inspired by my grandmother’s life, so the premise was taken from family history. Dragon Springs Road, on the other hand, started off as a detour while researching turn-of-the-century Shanghai when I came across references to the Eurasians who lived during pre-War China. Imagine pre-War Shanghai and its decadent reputation. There were thousands of children born to prostitutes and poor women. If they survived infanticide the girls were often put to work in brothels. They were unwanted and unacknowledged by Chinese and Westerners, an embarrassment to both sides. So I tried to imagine what life might’ve been like for such a child, to grow up in a society that valued males, family connections, and lineage.
But there are many, many details that made their way from family history and into Dragon Springs Road – so yes, I’m still drawing from family history. These small incidents and anecdotes breathe life into the setting, because they’re accounts of real events.
3)On your website, you have enclosed photos that provide readers some insight for the book. Did you do much outside research for the book? If yes, what exactly did you do?
Wow. I’m so glad you checked out the Gallery (Click for link). It’s meant to help readers visualize the world of the novel. As for research, you start with the least expensive – online research. And that includes looking for books that might be helpful. I bought a LOT of books, because while they might be available at a library, I like to have them right there on my shelf to flip through as needed. It feels as though I used only 10% of all the information I researched! If you love history, you have to be disciplined when doing research or else you end up down the rabbit hole. Even though both Three Souls and Dragon Springs Road contain elements of fantasy, they are solidly researched. They are historical novels.
It was actually quite challenging because there were almost no contemporary accounts of the lives of Eurasian orphans and the poor; I found some academic books about Eurasians in China, but much of those accounts were of biracial Chinese from the upper and middle-classes, who were literate and whose lives were documented. There was almost nothing when it came to the far larger population of the poor and orphaned; back in those days, no one wanted to know. Then a friend suggested looking into the memoirs of women missionaries and that really helped because those women were the ones who ran schools and orphanages, who could remark on what happened to the children.
4) Dragon Springs Road may have just come out but it looks like reaction to it has been very positive. Is that the case? Have there been any memorable comments to the book that you care to share?
This is my second novel, so I think my publishers have more to work with in terms of readership and media attention – they’re no longer trying to promote a one-book author! Memorable comments? Well, I suffered from the Dreaded Sophomore Novel Syndrome while writing Dragon Springs Road and thought that it was going to be a terrible book! So when my editors came back after reading the manuscript and said it was an even better, more accomplished novel than the first, I was so relieved! So the email from my editor was definitely memorable.
5)Are you planning on partaking on any public readings of Dragon Springs Road at all? If yes, are there any dates/events that you are looking forward to participating in?
6) You seem to be active on both social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Are you hoping that readers connect with you through those means to comment on this book? How do you like using those means of communication in relation to your writing?
Social media is a requirement these days for authors unless you’re Elena Ferrante, who every author envies for having sidestepped the time drain that’s social media. I’m active on Facebook and Twitter, probably more Facebook than Twitter. In general, social media makes me nervous. My background is in high tech and I am so aware of the privacy issues surrounding these free services, such as what corporations can do with data mining to cross-reference your personal information from different sources. And don’t even get me started on the decline of civil conversation in an age of tweets.
On the other hand, I’ve become friends with readers and other authors through social media, from reaching out to them and vice versa, so I shouldn’t complain. I know that social media makes it easier for readers to ask questions. When I don’t have time to write a good blog, Facebook is a good place to post an article about something that I’m reading and thinking about. There are friends I would lose touch with if not for social media.
7) Your website offers a special section for book clubs (and states that you will even participate in a book-clubs discussion groups via Skype). Have you participated in many book-club activities? Is that something you enjoy doing?
It’s good to get out of the writing den! Skype is not as nice as face-to-face, but it means you can meet with book clubs anywhere. Last year HarperCollins New Zealand organized one with a book club in Queenstown, on the South Island of (New Zealand) !
8) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?
Absolutely. Novel #3 is all outlined. I’m really excited about the premise and can’t wait for the flurry of promotion for Dragon Springs Road to be finished so that I can really get down to writing. What I can say is that the third novel is inspired by family history. Again. And it mixes history with the supernatural. Again.
Kilby Smith-McGregor has had a busy time since her book Kids In Triage came out last May. But being busy for her may not be a bad thing for somebody as insightful and talented as her. In the Q&A listed below, she talks about the book, other projects and her upcoming schedule. No doubt we will be hearing a lot more about her soon.
1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of Kids In Triage? Was there something specific that occurred that made you want to write the book?
Late last winter I was visiting my uncle’s family farm near Fordwich, Ontario; he knew I had a book coming out and asked me what it was called. I said Kids In Triage and he took a moment’s pause and replied, “I guess that’s…a whole generation…more than one.” He’s a brilliant guy, a geologist, but not a ‘lit-culture’ guy. I love that the title resonated with him. I could see it in his face. It helps remind me of poetry’s potential to reach humans-at-large, not just writers and their friends. The most amazing part of publishing a book so far has been hearing from readers, real people, who bring their own context and perspective to the work.
The word triage is a medical and military term for classifying and prioritizing injuries in a mass casualty situation. In this collection of poems, I wanted to explore how we identify and deal with emergencies, both public and private. The contemporary world is a mess; the 24-hour news feed is on fire; so, where do we put our energy, where will our care and intervention make a difference? The book is also very much meditation on the body, on gender, violence, and the dynamics of families. These are abiding personal and philosophical obsessions for me, so it doesn’t completely surprise me that the material I eventually shaped into my first book circles around these questions.
2) Your website lists you as both a writer and a graphic artist. Is there one occupation you prefer over the other or are they both compatible in enjoyment for you?
Writing can be a near-transcendent vocation, but it is an absolutely terrible profession. I can think of maybe two or three writers in this country who make a living from literary writing alone. Many teach or work as editors and copywriters, and that can siphon off a lot of your literary juice, depending on your temperament. What I love about being a commercial graphic artist is that it’s creative, but in a completely different way. Even when I act as my own art director, my graphic design projects are in service of someone else’s vision or message, and I like collaborating with clients on that, using my skills and experience to help them represent themselves aesthetically.
3) Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?
The major touchstone writers of my literary coming-of-age—for different reasons—are likely JM Coetzee, David Foster Wallace, Marilynne Robinson, and Canadian novelist Michael Helm. Until recently, even my work in poetry has been primarily influenced by prose writers. These are amazing writers, but also not culturally or linguistically representative of the full scope of brilliant stuff that’s available out there. I’ve been diving into the work of contemporary Canadian writers who are relatively new to me this summer: Cherie Dimaline’s story collection, A Gentle Habit (Kegedonce, 2015), and Vivek Shraya’s novel She of the Mountains (Arsenal Pulp, 2014); in addition to Madhur Anand’s Index for Predicting Catastrophes (M&S, 2015), and Soraya Peerbaye’s Tell: poems for a girlhood (Pedlar, 2015), on the poetry front. Then there are recent works by American poets Ocean Vuong, and Jericho Brown, as well as the stunning lyric memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place (Graywolf, 2011), by Binyawanga Wainaina. Wainaina’s book follows his coming-of-age in Kenya, and I had the chance to read it while travelling in Kenya in August—a real treat. I have a lot to learn and discover as a reader and I’m always eager for recommendations.
4) Is there much of a book/reading tour being planned for Kids In Triage? If yes, are there any specific events that you are looking forward?
I’m thrilled to be reading with poet Roxanna Bennet at knife | fork | book, a new Toronto series, on November 3rd [event link: https://knifeforkbook.com/2016/09/11/poets-meet-november-3rd/]. k|f|b is hosted by ever-dynamic reader and curator Jeff Kirby, who has launched a poetry-and-small-press-only bookshop at Rick’s Cafe in Kensington market. You can check out his amazing blog, pictures of the shop, and info about in-store readings on his blog [link: https://knifeforkbook.com/]. I’ll also be in Hamilton, Ontario, at the Lit Live Reading Series [link: http://litlive.blogspot.ca] on December 4th, with friend and fellow Wolsak & Wynn poet, James Lindsay, as well as some other interesting writers across genres.
In the new year I’ll be visiting the Queen’s University undergraduate creative writing program, run by poet Carolyn Smart, and then Carolyn and I will travel from Kingston to Montreal to read together at the Resonance Reading Series [series link: http://www.resonancereadingseries.com] on February 7th. I’m thrilled to be touring with Carolyn; she’s a remarkable poet for her unflinching treatment of violence—as exemplified the brilliant, dark monologues of Hooked, and her new collection Careen, which undercuts the Hollywood treatment of Bonnie & Clyde. The trip is also significant to me because she’s the founder of the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, which I received in 2010, and has continued to be a kind supporter of my work from afar. I’m looking forward to the chance to spend some time together talking about poetry, prose, and Bronwen.
New events are updated regularly on my website: kilbysm.com
5) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?
I’m a spectacularly slow prose writer, but in the wake of publishing the poetry collection, I’ve doggedly returned to work on my short story manuscript, All Swimmers. I’m hoping to finish a full draft in the spring. The story collection shares many points of intersection with the poetry, so I hope it will be of interest to readers of Kids in Triage when it eventually comes out.
6) You seem to be an active participant on Twitter. How do you feel about the use of social media in relation to promoting your work? Will you be expanding your presence onto Facebook and other social media platforms?
I joined Twitter in the fall of 2015 and I thought I would hate it. But the access to interesting links and current conversations in the community won me over. I’m not sure it’s a very reliable way to promote your own work if you’re not engaged with it at a professional level (i.e. curating regular ‘branded’ content and using platforms like Hootsuite to manage your activity)—but I do think it’s nice to have a record of things you’re interested in, if people want to know more about you. It’s also a quick, friendly way to give a shout out of support and amplify the voices of others. I have no plans to join Facebook, though the pressure from my family is unrelenting.
7) Your bios have you listed as spending a lot of time in the Guelph-Toronto area? Is that where you currently reside? And is there a lot in the way of cultural activities in that area that keep you engaged?
I lived in Guelph for some of my childhood, and I also taught fiction at the University there as part of the Open Learning Program, but Toronto is my home these days. Toronto offers an embarrassment of riches in terms of cultural and literary events. Not-going-out can prove more difficult than going out, but I find it’s important to take time to curl up with my dog and just read or watch TV some evenings. Some of my favourite ongoing lit events happen here, though. I’m a huge fan of the HIJHouse Reading Series [link: http://bookthug.ca/hij-house-reading-series/ ] graciously hosted by BookThug publishers Jay and Hazel Millar in their family home. Hazel bakes homemade pie for each installment, which is a pretty amazing feat—so come for the readings and stay for the pie! I also love the PivotReading Series [link: https://pivotreadings.ca], which has been run by Sachiko Murakami, and most recently Jake McArthur Mooney, and will be transitioning to a new host in the coming months; it has a great legacy and has showcased writers of all different stripes from across Canada and beyond.
There is this difficult notion in society that families are suppose to be this perfect unit that provides us comfort and nurturing. Yet the truth is that families are made up of individuals whose personalities are impossible to deal with. When we try to deal with those people as children, the impression they leave on us can be damaging on us for the rest of our lives. But we need to openly reflect on those people in our adult lives to deal with those traumas they caused us. And reading literature helps us reflect on our own families and our upbringings instead of repressing angers and pains. And Kathryn Mockler’s ebook Freight is a great example of such a story.
My grandmother is the type of woman that always remembers to stand up straight and to tell others to do the same. On our yearly visits to Peterborough, I try to avoid my grandmother as much as possible. She doesn’t think I’m very bright. She doesn’t think my mother works enough with me, and so, in the week we spend there, she is determined to make me smarter. She brings out flash cards and makes me do spelling bees for money.
-Look, Vera, look at that. She can’t add, my grandmother says. -Prue, don’t count on your fingers.
I give mother “the look” until she finally says, -Leave her alone. She gets enough of that at school.
We are dropped into Prue’s life just as she is becoming self-aware and questioning the world around her. And there is something wrong with the world around her or at least with the people who should be caring for her in this world. But what is it? As we follow through Prue’s visit with her grandparents, we read as she begins to realize perhaps no one is perfect.
My mother gets herself another beer from the cooler. I watch my mother watch Dermot puts his arm absentmindedly around Margaret’s shoulder.
-She drives me crazy too, I say.
My mother laughs. -It doesn’t really affect you because she’s not your mother. You’re just lucky I tried so hard not to be like her.
I don’t know when I noticed my mother getting drunk. Maybe it was when she started talking to that man, a friend of Dermot’s. It seemed like one moment she was fine and the next she was slurring her words. It’s the slurring that bothers me the most because then everyone else knows how drunk she is.
There is a complex therapy that seemed to happen when reading this simple coming-of-age story. We build an empathy with Prue but we also ponder our own lives when we back in Prue’s age. We carefully consider our upbringing and the people around us at that time. And we then look at ourselves now. Do we act better? Do we behave better to the youngster around us now?
I feel a bit sorry for my grandmother. She probably has hurt feelings. When my mother leaves the room to get ready, I don’t follow her. I’m glad my mother is going out. I don’t even want to look at her.
I think my grandmother has sensed that something is wrong because she doesn’t bother me all night. No flash cards or spelling bees. We have a light supper and watch TV.
Kathryn Mockler has a great way of making readers seriously consider their world around themselves with her words and that is exactly what she has done with Freight. Not only do we build empathy with the character but we ponder our own existence on several levels. In short, doing what any piece of literature should do.
I was totally thrilled a few weeks ago when I discovered Andrew F. Sullivan collection of short stories All We Want Is Everything. (Link to my review) The book seemed to cover a certain reality that I am aware of yet is very rarely discussed. But then the book seemed to do something for me what any good cultural artifact is suppose to do but rarely does these days: become a topic of conversation. Online, offline, in emails and over coffees, the book kept creeping into my conversations and people seemed eager to hear about it. So I was thrilled this week when Sullivan agreed to answer a few questions. No doubt his thoughts will pique an further interest in his works for us readers.
1) Your latest novel is entitled WASTE. Could you give an outline of it?
WASTEis about bad people making bad decisions because they believe it is the fastest way to deal with a problem. It’s about the collapse of a small Ontario city during the post-industrial decline that swept a lot of blue collar communities in the province. It is a surreal, nightmare version of these cities over the course of one December weekend. The plot kicks off with a wannabe skinhead and a part-time butcher accidentally running over the local drug kingpin’s pet lion and everything that follows circles back to this event. It’s a bit madcap and vicious. It’s a book about dread, about failing to measure up, and about trying to do the right thing when everyone else has already surrendered to their demons. And I hope it’s funny too, but that’s not up to me.
2) What inspired you to write WASTE (if anything?) How long did it take to write?
A lot of things, but primarily all the bullshit lies guys on the afternoon shift would tell each other when I worked in a liquor warehouse. I wanted to create a world where the things they said were actually true (and a lot of them were, in one way or another). I wanted to write a Canadian book that dealt with violence, small scale, but very real violence we often ignore or don’t read about. It’s a currency we trade with each other. It behooves the people who ignore it to continue ignoring it, to claim it isn’t there. But it is and it’s real and it’s coming.
Ontario’s fairly loose zoo laws also played a factor.
3) It has been a few years now since ‘All We Want is Everything.’ It has been noted on a few fronts as being a great book, but how are you finding the public’s reaction to it?
It’s a short story collection, so no matter what, the audience will be small. However, they are great readers and I am incredibly lucky to have this book end up in so many wise readers’ hands, readers who really interrogate the work they consume and respond to the stories I try to tell. I think the short story is a great form, but it does have limited appeal. To see this book still going three years later with new readers really does bring me a lot of happiness. It’s good to find stories that can last.
There is an assumption that everything in AWWIE is true or real, but a lot of the stories are very surreal and strange, including “Mutations“, “Towers“, and “Cloud.” I try to approach the surreal with a very upfront approach, so that may be why readers are willing to go along with the uncomfortable, unreal parts of my work. And I truly appreciate that. I think sometimes the uncanny gives us an opportunity to reexamine our assumptions and approach narrative with fresh eyes.
4) There has been a few discussions in my circles about the cover photo of “All We Want Is Everything?” Did you choose the image for the cover of the book. Do the two dogs in that image symbolize anything for you?
I did choose the photo. I was incredibly lucky to work with a small publisher that valued my input. John K. Samson (of The Weakerthans) was my editor and he really put in the effort to track down the photographer, Leigh Ledare. Leigh was extremely generous and kind to allow us to use the photo, which I had found five years earlier in an issue of VICE when it was still primarily a print magazine. I actually had a print out of it attached to the inside of my closet door at my parents’ place, which is still hanging there.
Yes, I do believe the dogs are symbolic for this book. They are circling one another, on the cusp of the fight, and that tension is something I try to work into my own fiction. I am interested in the build-up and the aftermath, the moment before the release and everything that follows. I think it captures a moment of intention. I think it captures a moment of dread, and I think dread might be my biggest obsession.
5) Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?
That’s always a big question and it is always changing. I will say I am a big fan of Richard Price and Richard Yates, I think they both tap into unique strains of desperate and angry America. With Price, its good to start with CLOCKERS and with Yates, I will have to say THE EASTER PARADE.
Toni Morrison’s THE BLUEST EYE was also a huge, huge influence on WASTE and I think about that book often. She has an incredible ability to plant a seed of dread in you and watch it grow. I’m also a fan of Harry Crews, if only for the audacity of his work and his drive to continue writing his own madcap tales. A FEAST OF SNAKES is a favourite from him.
Recently, I’ve been enjoying the works of Yuri Herrera, a Mexican author, whose short novels SIGNS PRECEDING THE END OF THE WORLD and THE TRANSMIGRATION OF BODIES offer up allegories for the unsettling, uncanny world of the border and the complications of violence and blood in modern Mexico. I’m also enjoying the strange, beautiful short stories of Amelia Gray’s GUTSHOT this week.
Yes, I look forward to almost all my readings or chances to do public events because it offers a chance to actually meet readers and engage with people who may otherwise never here of your book. Thousands upon thousands of books are published every year and so few of them are read by a wide audience, so these opportunities are very important for any writer. And what self-involved person doesn’t love to be the centre of attention for 7 brief minutes during a reading. No, a lot of writers occasionally abhor readings and I’ve been to plenty of bad ones myself, but a good reading or a good public speaker can really make a story sing. It’s up to the author to make it a performance and to choose a piece that reads well aloud, not just on the page.
7) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?
I’ve got another novel that’s just come to a close about a man who believes he’s immortal and human trafficking in Canada, but we’ll see what happens. I’ve also got a collection of stranger, creepier short stories that I’ve been sitting on for a bit. We’ll see where they end up.
8) You seem to be active on the social-media app Twitter. How do you like using social media in relation to promoting your work? Are you on any other social media sites?
I don’t think social media is a great place to seriously promote your work, but it is a really great place to find other writers, publishers and artists who you enjoy and to express your enjoyment. If those people enjoy the work you post or your online presence, then maybe they’ll buy your book, but I think a lot of online social media promotion ends up causing more cringing than sales. It is useful to announce your publications and readings, but a daily push of your book might turn off more people than it brings into the fold. I use other social media like most people in my generation, but I’m not too invested in it beyond making jokes on Twitter.
9) You biography states how you grew up in Oshawa and now live in Toronto. How do you like living in Toronto right now? Are there any cultural institutions in T.O. that you truly enjoy and gain enlightenment from?
I like Toronto a lot, it’s a great cultural hub and it allows me to meet and support a lot of other young writers. Ontario itself has a lot of small towns where you can end up isolated. For now, this is where I want to be. I still have a lot of love for my hometown, but Toronto is where the jobs are for me currently.
If we’re talking cultural institutions, I am forever thankful that we have the TIFF Lightbox here. The programming they run year round is incredible, the audiences are usually great and some of the guests they bring in for Q+A or lecture series often lead to some incredibly unique and treasured experiences. I will never forget Guillermo Del Toro breaking down the history of the Gothic romance before we all watched Hitchcock’s Rebecca. No movies outside your regular blockbusters ever came to my hometown, so it’s pretty great to live in a city that will run a Brian De Palma retrospective and an Andrzej Żuławski retrospective at the same time.
Penn Kemp has been not only been a poet but a cultural icon around my home town of London, Ontario, Canada. Yes, her written words have inspired but her actions in a complex number of fronts have also been a source of enlightenment and engagement for numerous people. It was an honour a few weeks ago when she sent me an advance copy of her new work Barbaric Cultural Practice (Link to my review) but discussing it only seem to capture a bit of this thought-provoking individual. She agreed to answer a few questions for me here, adding a bit more insight into her and her work.
1) What inspired you to first write poetry? You have been involved in other forms of writing (including play writing). Does poetry hold any special traits for you that other writings don’t have?
My grandmothers were grand sources of inspiration. My Strathroy grandmother knew many poems by heart (that delicious phrase!) which she would recite to me in a kind of incantatory lilt. The sound transported me. My little Irish grandmother told me wild tales of legends that sparked my imagination into new realms of possibility, realms beyond my house and yard.
When my brother was born, my mother no longer had all the time in the world to read to me. So I memorized the nursery rhymes I loved. But that wasn’t enough; I wanted more. I tried to make sense of the black squiggles on the page until they slowly, finally, swam into meaning. What a discovery! It was pure magic to go from reading other people’s poems and stories to writing them myself. I would set up my dolls in a line on the couch and perform to this unfailingly attentive audience. Power to the reader! Power to the writer!”
What made me a poet? Curiosity. The thrill of adventure, of new worlds. I began piecing out the words to myself. I remember the thrill of pure magic when a word would leap into focus, into meaning. The black letters would assume a third dimension; they would dance. I could almost hear them speak to me directly. I was hooked. I wrote my first poem when I was six, excited and amazed at having created through apparent magic something out of nothing with marks on a page. I glimpsed a world in which words had a life of their own, just as toys did. I knew that if I could wake at the right time at night I would catch my toys at play. So too, I felt words could be surprised and fixed onto the page. If I listened closely enough, words would well up in my head and emerge as a poem.
Writing that first poem was the first time that I recall consciously feeling that I was doing an adult thing— creating something entirely on my own, assuming independence— growing up! I felt like the Little Red Hen in the nursery story: “‘I can do it myself,’ said The Little Red Hen, and she did.”
2) You recently sent me an advance copy of “Barbaric Cultural Practice.” (Thank you!) How long did it take you to write it? Is there any special hopes you have for the book?
Many of the poems in Barbaric Cultural Practice have been culled from performance pieces that have been honed over many years and produced on CD/DVD, but not in book form till now. I’m grateful for family and friends’ encouragement en route and ongoing during the evolution of these poems. The list is long and extends back decades.
Poetry needs to be heard as well as read, so I have concentrated in recent years on audio renditions and videopoems in collaboration with Bill Gilliam, John Magyar, Dennis Siren and (always!) Gavin Stairs. How exciting to be able to offer links to video and audio performances of some of these poems through QR codes!
Several of the poems in Barbaric Cultural Practice were provoked into being by political events; hence, the title. As an aging activist, I confront by words such issues as climate change and overwhelmingly new technologies. The poems juxtapose the stress of urban life as compared to nature’s round. The poems deal, for example, with the effect of computers on our psyche and with the imprint of electronic media upon perception, consciousness and dream life. Barbaric Cultural Practice pays tribute to our dear Mother World’s enchantments as well as her upheavals. Poetry is my response to the unprecedented complexities of our time.
3) (These next questions is one I know draws fear from other writers when I ask it here but I know some of my followers are eager to know an answer from you.) Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?
I read Canadian poetry and fiction, especially that which our library stocks. Daily, I scan “New Items” from London Library’s website! (Link to that page) Am reading a new edition of Mavis Gallant’s A fairly good time: with green water, green sky as well as Ann Carson’s Red Doc>. Then on to Margaret Christakos’s Her Paraphernalias: on Motherlines, Sex/Blood/Loss & Selfies.
4) I know you have a reading event planned at Oxford Books on Oct. 11 but do you have any other reading events planned? Are public readings something you enjoy?
I do enjoy public readings. It’s a privilege to share the innermost source of poetry when performing. And I love to hear poets read their work: the timbre of voice precisely matches their written word. Once I’ve heard a poet read, that voice echoes in my mind when I next read the work.
Here are some upcoming events where I’ll be reading:
September 3, 1:30 – 4:30 p.m. With musician Bill Gilliam @ 2pm. Vino Rosso Bar & Restaurant. 995 Bay St., Toronto ON M5S 3C4, 416 926-1800.
5) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?
My forthcoming play, The Triumph of Teresa Harris, originated in a short piece for London’s PlayWrights Cabaret at McManus Theatre in 2013. Then it was produced as an hour-long processional play at Eldon House Museum, with one actor and two musicians (co-artistic directors of Light of East Ensemble). More information about the original production, The Dream Life of Teresa Harris is up on https://teresaharrisdreamlife.wordpress.com/. There too are some reviews from the show. I am developing the play into a full length piece with ten or more characters for production at London’s Palace Theatre in March, 2017. The original musicians are participating in the play again.
Teresa Harris was born in 1839 at Eldon House and died in 1928 in England. She tells her amazing life story from her home here. Born the youngest of a prosperous pioneer family intent on bettering itself, Teresa married a Scottish military man who promised to carry her off to foreign parts she had dreamed of all her life, sickly though she had always been. Teresa’s story emerges through her own voice and that of her protective mother and her two husbands. Research reveals that Teresa and her second husband St. George Littledale were the greatest English explorers of their period, travelling further into Asia than any Westerner had.
Hers is an historical life as mediated through my imagination. My visits to beautiful Eldon House brought the era alive. It was easy to write from Teresa’s perspective since I identified with her and admired her adventurous spirit. It was fun to imagine her desire to escape the strictures of family convention for more exotic locales. Having been raised in London in the Fifties, I felt the town hadn’t changed all that much from the colonial outpost it had been in Victorian times. It was still very Anglo and class-conscious, patterned upon London, England like a pale shadow of the Mother Country. At twenty-one, I too couldn’t wait to escape, to travel the world! And I did. I was also happy to return to settle comfortably back in the house I grew up in after forty years away from London.
6) You seem to be active on both Facebook and Twitter. How do you like using those platforms in relation to your writing? Does your WordPress blog site also work well for your writing?
The platforms are a necessity for a working writer to spread the word… and sometimes they are an escape from writing: fun, as well! The virtual communities are engaging: who could have imagined being able to keep in touch with so many people at once. And folks can promote various causes on my (Facebook) group, Support and Promote Canadian Arts and Cultures.
7) You have travelled around the world and still call the London, Ontario, Canada area your home. How do you like living here?
See #5. Yes, London is home. I was born in Strathroy and raised in London. I belong here.
Are there cultural institutions here that you consider unique that inspire your writing? If yes, what are they?
As the City of London’s first Poet Laureate and as writer-in-residence for Creative Aging London, I was very involved in different aspects of the community. Several occasions prompted poems. Other poems were commissioned by groups such as ReForest London.
Western U. gave me a great grounding in literature as a student there. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed teaching classes in Continuing Ed., and as Writer-in-Residence, and hosting a radio show, Gathering Voices, at CHRW. (Link to CHRW’s webpage for “Gathering Voices”)
This fall, I will be working on aspects of the play, including publicity and marketing, with students from Western in the course, Canadian Literature, Creativity, and the Local, with a Community Engaged Learning component. Working with me in this applied learning opportunity, the students will cultivate links with Eldon House and The Palace as part of the project. (Link to the course outline from Western University’s online calendar)
I first became involved in publishing when a local publishing house, Applegarth Follies, asked me to be their poetry editor in 1977. (Josiah Applegarth was London’s first settler). While I edited Twelfth Key, the famous Brick Magazine was published alongside. Another offshoot of Applegarth was Brick Books, still publishing glorious poetry nation-wide some forty years later and still based in London!
For many for us book fans, reading is not only a means of entertainment but a way to enlighten ourselves about the world and the way people interact in it. As the Autumn 2016 new releases come around, there is a promise of such reads for us. One such book is Jowita Bydlowska’s Guy: Or Why Women Love Me. No doubt this book sounds like it should be both funny and give us something to ponder. Bydlowska answered a few questions for me here about her new book.
A) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of “Guy: Or Why Women Love Me?”
Hope it’s okay to use our official write-up (it sums it up well): Guy is a successful talent agent who dates models, pop stars and women he meets on the beach. He’s a narcissistic, judgmental snob who rates women’s looks from one to ten; a racist, homophobic megalomaniac who makes fun of people’s weight; a cheating, lying, manipulative jerk who sees his older girlfriend as nothing more than an adornment. His only real friend, besides his dog, is a loser who belongs to a pick-up artist group. Guy is completely oblivious to his own lack of empathy, and his greatest talent is hiding it all…until he meets someone who challenges him in a way he’s never been challenged before.
B)What inspired you to write “Guy?” How long did it take to write it? Was there any research involved in the book?
One summer day in 2011, I was walking on the beach, in a bikini, and this guy walking by checked me out. Unlike most guys’ his glance wasn’t furtive – he seemed very confident and there was something about the way he looked at me that made me think he thought I should be honoured that he bothered to look at me. But perhaps I’m wrong about that interpretation; perhaps my fiction-writing part of the brain was already writing a story… Anyway. I had this thought about what it would be like to be a very good-looking dude who is a narcissist and who believes he could get any woman he’d wanted.
In terms of research, I talked to men about what it’s like to be a straight guy. Also, I have this attractive male friend who’s very popular with women and I’ve asked him his pick-up techniques. Also, I spent some time hanging out on Pick-up Artist Internet forums. Filthy, fascinating stuff.
C) Your online biographies have you listed as both a journalist and a fiction writer. Do you find much differences between the two styles of writing? If yes, explain.
A non-fiction writer reports (creatively or otherwise) from reality, and a fiction writer observes, filters, and interprets the same reality and reports from imagination.
D) Who are you favourite writers? What are you reading right now?
Michel Houellebecq, Bret Easton Ellis, Elana Ferrante, Laura Albert, Sheila Heti, Miranda July, Barbara Gowdy, Joseph Boyden, Lena Andersson, Jessica Knoll, Jim Shepard, Otetessa Moshfegh, Karolina Walclawiak, Douglas Glover, Herman Koch, Leonard Michaels, Lena Dunham, John Fowles, and many more.
I’m reading apartment listings right now as I’m in the midst of looking for a place.
E)No doubt you will be working on new items for your journalistic career but are you working on any new books right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?
My agent just sent out my latest novel, Wolves Evolve, to a few publishers here and in the US. The novel is about complicated marriage, adultery, mental illness, aquariums and self discovery. Next, I plan to write a novel about Warsaw Uprising.
F) Your biographies have you listed as living in Toronto? How do you like living there? Are there any cultural institutions that Toronto has that inspire your writing at all?
I’m not a huge fan of Toronto right now – being single and living here (and taking care of a kid) is ridiculously expensive. I’d like to move to the country. Or Europe. In terms of cultural institutions, I do love International Festival of Authors that happens here ever fall. One of the themes in my newly submitted novel Wolves Evolve is comparison/ contrast between Toronto and a West-coast city like Seattle.
I had been in a bit of a funk with my blog last week. The summer months have been busy on other fronts for me, and my personal reading and reflection time has been somewhat limited. I had been trying to look forward to the autumn new releases in hopes of something invigorating for my mind would come forward. Then a message from Penn Kemp came via Facebook, asking if I would look and review her new book coming out in the fall. I agreed and I found myself enveloped in her Barbaric Cultural Practice.
Penn Kemp is an icon in the cultural landscape. Her biography page on her blog states she has over 25 books of poetry and drama published, plus six plays and numerous works recorded on different electronic means. But this new work is brilliant in its form.
No doubt, many of us Canadians were shocked last year when the government used the term Barbaric Cultural Practices on several fronts to justify their actions. We were outraged by the term, elected the government out of office and, no doubt, didn’t give the term much thought since. But Kemp has done something enlightening for readers by using the term for this collection of poetry. She has crafted her personal thoughts and views in this work and given all of us something to consider about our own actions. As she told me in the email she sent me with the advance copy: . . . the poems in Barbaric Cultural Practice pay tribute to our dear Mother World’s enchantments as well as her upheavals. They confront the stresses of urban life as juxtaposed to nature’s round, and deal, for example, with the effect of computers on our psyche and with the imprint of electronic media upon perception, consciousness and dream life. They are a response to the need for action against climate change and a humorous protest against overwhelming technology.
The beauty of me reading poetry at this stage of my life is the admiration of thought and consideration of the human condition that writers of the form have. After spending numerous years attempting a career in the media field, turning to reading and considering literature has been an enlightening experience for me. Literature should cause a reader to consider their world and their actions in the world around them. Penn Kemp has done that for me with her collection Barbaric Cultural Practice. No doubt I will be reading it again and quoting it here when it is published.